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In Selena Gomez vs Hailey Bieber, there was only ever going to be one winner

The alleged drama between Selena Gomez and Hailey Bieber has found new life on TikTok, where resurfaced videos and fan theories are running rampant. Meredith Clark writes how our obsession with a decades-old feud points to something bigger

Friday 24 March 2023 18:49 GMT
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Elizabeth Taylor vs Debbie Reynolds. Joan Crawford vs Bette Davis. Paris Hilton vs Lindsay Lohan. Rumours of celebrity feuds have stood the test of time, but none has people more invested than Selena Gomez and Hailey Bieber.

For those who weren’t born in the late 90s to early 2000s, and didn’t have a signed poster of Justin Bieber from Tiger Beat magazine pinned to their childhood bedroom wall, the so-called “feud” between a Disney Channel sweetheart and the final boss of nepotism babies may come as a surprise. But perhaps the reason why our social media feeds have been inundated with resurfaced videos, tattoo comparisons, and close-up pictures of eyebrows is because this renewed drama between Selena Gomez and Hailey Bieber is a dream come true for those of us who live for nostalgia.

To start from the beginning, we must go back to the glory days of Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez, aka “Jelena” – a preteen girl’s version of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. The “Baby” singer and the Wizards of Waverly Place star were a match made in tween heaven. The two made their red carpet debut at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party in February 2011. That same month, Hailey and Justin posed for a photo together at the premiere of his movie, Never Say Never – alongside her dad, the lesser-known Stephen Baldwin.

In fact, Hailey and Justin’s first photo together dates back all the way to 2009, proving that Hailey Bieber is the queen of manifestation.

Over the next two years, Selena and Justin were very on-again, off-again, and called it quits once more in 2015. That same year, Justin was spotted kissing Hailey on New Year’s Eve in Turks and Caicos while Selena was partying with former pal Kendall Jenner in Dubai. Just normal, celebrity things.

The two had their fair share of flings – Justin with Sofia Richie, Selena with The Weeknd – before reconciling in 2017. But by May 2018, they were over for good. Two months later, Justin proposed to Hailey and they were married that September.

Nearly five years have passed since then, which means all of this should be said and done. But the internet never forgets, especially when we now have TikTok.

The 10-year-old alleged feud found new life on the video-sharing platform recently after Hailey posted a since-deleted TikTok, which many people saw as a dig at Selena’s appearance. Hailey quickly denied this, replying to a fan on TikTok that the video was “not directed at anyone”.

Even Selena left a comment about the video, adding that she doesn’t “let these things get me down!”

Days later, the “Wolves” singer posted a video of herself to Instagram, where she shared that she accidentally over-laminated her eyebrows. In a twist of events, Kylie Jenner posted a picture of both her and Hailey’s eyebrows to her Instagram story that same day, in case fans needed more drama to speculate about.

The Kylie Cosmetics founder then quickly denied the “shady” claims too, when she commented on a viral TikTok post: “This is reaching. No shade towards Selena ever and I didn’t see her eyebrow posts! You guys are making something out of nothing. This is silly.”

There was also that video of Hailey seemingly throwing shade at Selena’s best friend Taylor Swift, followed by Selena dethroning Kylie as the most-followed woman on Instagram, then Selena deleting social media altogether. It’s a whirlwind.

In the past week, it seems everyone’s feed has been flooded with TikTok videos about the alleged feud. Even Selena Gomez fans are now having their boyfriends take sides by forcing them to follow her on Instagram. But why does the internet care so much? Well, the TikTokers behind the viral videos seem to have a few theories.

Amanda is a 28-year-old pop culture enthusiast with a career background in influencer marketing. On TikTok, Amanda boasts more than 23,000 followers on her account Let’s Talk Pop Culture, where her videos about Selena/Hailey gate have amassed millions of views. As someone who grew up during the haydays of #Jelena, Amanda believes that people are so invested because it reminds us of the good old days.

“I feel like for a lot of people, at least for this generation, this was the first young couple in Hollywood,” Amanda tells The Independent. “People were such die-hard fans of Justin Bieber, I feel like no one was going to let the person that Justin Bieber dated get off easy. But for some reason when it came to him dating Selena Gomez – who was considered America’s sweetheart – I think people were okay with it.”

Gomez – who got her start on the children’s show Barney and Friends when she was just 10 years old – became beloved by fans as Disney Channel’s rebellious wizard, Alex Russo, on Wizards of Waverly Place. Meanwhile, Justin Bieber represented the modern-day American (or in this case, Canadian) dream, which of course is to be discovered on YouTube. Together, with their similar backgrounds – both Selena and Justin were raised by single mothers – the two seemed like the perfect match.

“I think just because so many of us grew up with Selena Gomez on Disney Channel, we’ve seen her as someone who’s relatable or someone who’s like a friend to us. There’s an invested interest in her,” says Cami Twomey, a pop culture and entertainment TikToker with 591,000 followers. “But also Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez’s relationship, when it was at its peak, got so much attention. It’s something that people still bring up constantly today, and I just think people feel protective of Selena Gomez.”

Then, there are those of us who are simply messy and live for the nostalgia-filled drama.

“I think the reason everybody’s so interested is because you always wanna know: Are Justin and Hailey going to measure up? Will they love each other as much as we all thought Justin loved Selena?” says Jennifer Kowalski, a licensed professional counselor at Thriveworks who specialises in relationships, behavioural issues, and trauma.

“It’s almost like watching a car crash,” she jokes.

For many, Selena was like the cool older sister who would promise not to tell on you when you snuck out of the house, but would make sure you came home at a reasonable hour. After leaving her show, as many former Disney Channel stars do, she pursued a career in music. She’s been open about her mental health journey, most recently with her Apple TV+ documentary, My Mind and Me. In 2015, she revealed that she has lupus – a long-term, incurable condition that impacts the immune system. Two years later, she underwent a kidney transplant at just 24 years old due to lupus-related organ damage.

Selena’s openness with her fans is partly why the internet has overwhelmingly taken her side in this supposed feud. And if you need proof of who’s taking sides, just scroll through Hailey’s Instagram comments. It’s brutal. Yet, it’s Selena’s vulnerability – albeit a positive thing to be open with your fanbase – that may be the cause of this inescapable, parasocial feud.

A parasocial relationship is a type of one-sided, pseudo-friendship that audiences have with media personas or personalities. The concept was first coined in 1956 by sociologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl to describe the way mass media consumers interact with media figures. The term “parasocial relationship” has since become the internet’s favourite buzzword, using it to describe everything from reactions to John Mulaney divorcing his wife of six years, to the infamous Johnny Depp and Amber Heard defamation trial.

According to Elizabeth Perse, a professor emeritus of communication at the University of Delaware, parasocial relationships are formed much like actual friendships – but the two are definitely not the same.

“A parasocial relationship is a kind of pseudo-friendship that audiences have with media personas or personalities. I use the word ‘personality’ because what audiences see through the media certainly is not necessarily what the personality is in real life,” she tells The Independent.

Prior to the invention of social media, parasocial relationships could be formed based on the amount of exposure someone had with a personality on their television screen. Much like actual friendships, the more you interact with a person, the deeper your friendship (or parasocial relationship) grows.

“The second thing is that there’s a sense of similarity that people feel with the personality,” Perse says about how these pseudo-friendships are formed. “It could be similarity that’s brought about because the personality seems to self-disclose through the medium. You learn about them, you feel some kind of kinship with them.”

The similarities between Selena and any other “girl next door” who dreams of one day making it big are not far off, according to  Jess Lucero – an entertainment reporter with 362,000 followers on TikTok. “Selena’s always been known as just a friendly girl next door. When they saw her relationship with Justin, it’s almost like these fans saw themselves in Selena, and I think that’s why they grew so attached to her.”

That isn’t to say that people who form parasocial relationships with their favourite fitness influencer or mommy blogger are in the wrong. With the inundation of content coming from social media, it’s inevitable that someone will become invested in a stranger’s life. Social media platforms have become breeding grounds for parasocial relationships, and access to our favorite celebrities has never been easier.

“There could only be so many new tabloids per month but now with social media, it continues every minute of every day,” says Lucero. “The second news comes out, you have TikTokers like me posting: ‘Look at what Selena commented on this video of Hailey.’ You have all these news publications posting about it. You have people who don’t even follow pop culture who are posting about it now.

“The reach is far beyond, because when it was just tabloids, you could easily grab them at the grocery store. But now you don’t even have to look for you to come across what’s going down between Selena, Hailey, and Kylie.”

Perhaps the internet’s investment in a decades-long feud between three celebrities isn’t parasocial at all, but with social media, something far bigger. “It might even be taking parasocial to another level, where you actually can communicate one-on-one with the personality. Not with the person, but with the personality that’s being created or the person who’s running their social media site,” says Perse. “There’s that illusion of interaction.”

It’s been more than 10 years since Selena and Justin broke up, and nearly five years since he tied the knot with Hailey. One can only imagine how much longer this alleged feud will last, or how it will end. A duel for Justin’s hand in marriage? A televised Oprah interview à la Harry and Meghan? Both parties deleting social media altogether?

On Friday 24 March, Selena issued a statement to her fans after Hailey supposedly contacted her about “death threats” she’s receiving due to the so-called feud. “Hailey Bieber reached out to me and let me know that she has been receiving death threats and such hateful negativity,” Selena wrote on her Instagram story. “This isn’t what I stand for. No one should have to experience hate or bullying. I’ve always advocated for kindness and really want this all to stop.”

Selena Gomez asks fans to stop sending Hailey Bieber ‘death threats’

Hailey followed up Selena’s statement with an Instagram post of her own. “I want to thank Selena for speaking out, as her and I have been discussing the last few weeks how to move past this ongoing narrative between her and I,” she said on her story.

“The last few weeks have been very hard for everyone involved and millions of people are seeing so much hate around this which is extremely harmful. While social media is an incredible way to connect and build community, moments like this only create extreme division instead of bringing people together.

“Things can always be taken out of context or construed differently than they were intended. We all need to be more thoughtful about what we post and what we say, including myself.”

“In the end, I believe love will always be bigger than hate and negativity, and there is always an opportunity to meet each other with more empathy and compassion.”

Hailey Bieber thanks Selena Gomez for ‘speaking out’

The statements were the first acknowledgement of any feud between the two stars in the last 10 years.

If the past decade is any indication that old wounds die hard, then maybe there will be no end in sight to the Selena and Hailey drama – as long as social media exists, that is. But there is one constant among all the mess: the internet will be invested with popcorn on standby.

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